When the judge asks the defendant how he or she wants to plead, the defendant can choose from the following 3 options:
- Not guilty
- No Contest
Let’s go over each of these 3 pleadings in a little more detail.
1. "Not Guilty"
If the defendant pleads not guilty, that means the defendant is currently stating that he or she is not guilty of the charges made against him or her by the state. The judge will then set the case for a preliminary hearing or trial depending on the nature and complexity of the case. For example, more complex cases with many legal and factual details may likely be set for a preliminary hearing on certain matters of the case. The preliminary hearing is like a "trial before a trial" where certain aspects of the case, like what evidence is admissible, will be tried before the judge. However, simpler cases may just be set for trial. The judge (or staff) will then select a date for the preliminary hearing or trial (and often make sure that the defendant can make it to court on that date). The defendant will be expected to be at the preliminary hearing or trial.
If the defendant pleads guilty, then the judge will usually ask his staff (or read for him or herself) the exact charge(s) brought against the defendant. As long as the charges adequately make out a cause of action that proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime(s), the judge will likely find the defendant guilty. The judge will generally ask the defendant and/or his attorney to state the defendant’s story. This is called allocution and requires that the defendant's story properly matches the charges against him or her. If a defendant fails to properly allocute (e.g. does not take responsibility for his or her acts), the judge may refuse the guilty plea and require a trial on the case.
The defendant will generally explain to the judge why the crime occurred and may ask the judge for leniency based on a clean past criminal record and other mitigating factors, i.e. other things to take into consideration. The judge will then either make an immediate decision and issue the penalty(-ies) associated with the crime or take the matter under advisement to issue his or her decision at a later date (usually in a written decision). The more complex the case the more likely the judge will take the matter under advisement to issue his or her decision in written form. Judges generally do this in order to make sure that they fully understand the facts of the case in applying the law to the facts.
3. "No Contest"
The defendant can also plead no contest (called nolo contendere in Latin) to the criminal charges. A "no contest" plea is similar in many respects to a "guilty" plea, but does offer some "technical" protections that a "guilty" plea does not. Still, many individuals wrongfully think that a no contest plea somehow relieves them of the charges. That’s not true! In fact, a defendant will face the same immediate penalties for the crime under a "no contest" plea as he or she would in a "guilty" plea. Also, a court can generally consider the facts of a "no contest" plea in future criminal cases (depending on the particular rules of the court and level of the crime).
With that said, there are certain "technical aspects" of a no contest plea that generally differ from a "guilty" plea. For example, the facts in a "no contest" plea generally cannot be used against the defendant as admissions in a civil case concerning those same facts. What does this mean? If you recall the O.J. Simpson trials, there were 2 cases involving the same facts: (i) the criminal case and (ii) civil case. The criminal case was the state against O.J., while the civil case concerned the family of those murdered against O.J. So, for example, if O.J. plead “no contest” to a charge in his criminal case, that generally could not be used as an admission in his civil case.
Now, if you’re a little lost, don’t worry about it. The differences between a "no contest" and "guilty" plea deal with legal technical aspects, which are best left for a lawyer to determine on a case by case basis. With that said, it’s generally better to plead "no contest" than "guilty" because it may help to protect you in certain ways in the future.
NOTE: A defendant can later change his or her "not guilty" plea to a "guilty" or a "no contest" plea. However, once the defendant pleads "guilty" or "no contest" he or she cannot change the plea to "not guilty."
Finally, let’s conclude this article with a few key points.